What to expect from the summit between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin?

| February 2nd, 2022

Velina is Director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES) in Vienna. www.velinatchakarova.com

Since it has become clear that the US will not intervene militarily in a possible war between Russia and Ukraine, China and Russia anticipate a likely American retreat from the old continent in the long run in order to focus more on the Indo-Pacific region and East Asia. In this context, China views NATO as an institutional remnant of the Cold War and is vehemently opposed to geopolitical and military blocs such as the US-led QUAD or AUKUS in the Indo-Pacific region, a view shared and diplomatically supported by Russia. The military escalation of the crisis in eastern Ukraine has shown that China and Russia have created a two-front scenario for the US on the diplomatic stage of global affairs. The two-front scenario, with Russia openly supporting China’s position on Taiwan and China openly supporting Russia’s position on Ukraine, creates a new level of diplomatic confrontation between the Dragonbear and the US. What China defines as “Russia’s strategic space” with regard to Ukraine, Russia correspondingly defines as “China’s strategic space” with regard to Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The Dragonbear has proven to be a unique modus vivendi for coordinating Moscow’s and Beijing’s positions on key international issues of strategic importance to their national interests. The Dragonbear is, however, neither an alliance nor an entente. China and Russia have tactically joined forces to manage the uncertain transitional phase of the bifurcation of the global system (growing systemic rivalry between China and the US as well as geopolitical competition between the US and Russia) without the strategic need to formally enter into an alliance. Russia’s impossible demands on the US and NATO regarding the future of the security architecture in Europe show that Moscow is preparing for “the long game”, i.e. the systemic rivalry between Washington and Beijing, and Russia’s future positioning in it. Russian President Putin is keen to enhance Russia’s role as an indispensable partner for China in this competition. The Russian president is also testing the American response to the Russian escalation, knowing that there will be no US military involvement in Ukraine due to the upcoming mid-term elections in November, and no NATO military involvement as Ukraine is not a member. This view is shared by China. Moreover, Russia is keeping the West busy until 20 February, which means an overt support for Beijing ahead of the Olympics, given the West’s diplomatic boycotts.

China is turning into a cornerstone of Russia’s foreign policy, and Beijing is siding with Moscow on the Ukraine issue, although it has business interests with Ukraine and the other countries in Eastern Europe. Russia needs a powerful ally because of its isolation by the West, while China needs a reliable international partner with regional power projection to bolster its global influence and global geopolitical clout. The extent to which this relationship will deepen depends on China’s continued geopolitical rise in global politics. It is in the interest of both countries to give the impression to the outside world of a stable and resilient alliance against the West. However, there are currently no clear signals of a defense alliance between the two powers. The rapprochement appears to be more tactical than strategic. Even maintaining the current status quo would probably be acceptable to both states as long as the rise of China does not pose a direct threat to Russia’s strategic interests in its own geopolitical sphere of influence. I do not anticipate a Russian military attack before February 20 because the Olympics are very important for Xi Jinping to demonstrate his soft power to the world and to improve China’s image after the Covid-19 virus outbreak. After February 20, a military attack is more likely, but only on a limited scale and with a limited timeframe for operations. In this regard, Russia will rely on China’s diplomatic backing in international organizations and regional forums, as well as strong economic and financial support, similar to the assistance provided by China after Russia was isolated by the West in 2014. However, Russia does not expect China to provide military support, so no Chinese strategic interests are threatened in the event of a military attack by Russia. By showing military strength, Vladimir Putin makes Russia an indispensable player, without which neither of the two rivals — the United States and China — could win the future system competition against each other in the long run.

The Russian president’s visit to China during the Olympics not only has strong symbolic significance to send a message of unity and firm ties between the two heads of state, but also serves to increase global diplomatic weight and improve China’s international image in the face of increasing boycotts by Western countries. On the diplomatic front, bilateral relations have continued to evolve. Russian President Putin stressed that relations with China have reached an unprecedented level of bilateral coordination. Nevertheless, China-Russia relations are not officially described as an alliance, but as something “better than all alliances.” Especially in international organizations, the increased systemic coordination is hard to be ignored. The voting behavior of both states in the United Nations Security Council shows an increasingly positive trend when it comes to coordinating their positions on current international affairs.

Logically, there will be plenty of issues of common interest to discuss during Putin’s visit to Beijing. The modus vivendi of systemic coordination of policies and actions primarily concerns energy, agribusiness, trade, security and defense policy, international and regional organizations, health, as well as the corridors for land and sea connectivity from China through Russia and Central Asia to Europe within the Belt and Road Initiative. The main common denominator is not only the goal of opposing U.S. positions on leading international issues, but also the creation of meaningful Eurasian connectivity in response to U.S. maritime dominance in the Indo-Pacific region, thereby ensuring security of supply in the event of future blockades of sea lanes. Moscow and Beijing also share a common goal of reducing the influence of third actors, particularly the United States and Europe, in Eurasia. As the leaders of all Central Asian countries will attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, I expect multilateral talks between China, Russia, and the five countries on positions of strategic interest (the situation after the crisis in Kazakhstan, cooperation within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), connectivity and anti-terrorist operations and measures, stabilization of Afghanistan). The talks are expected to focus not only on Central Asia, following Russia’s recent military engagement in Kazakhstan with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), but also on Afghanistan and the ties with South Asia (Pakistan), where Russia is entering the energy sector with negotiations on a new gas pipeline, while China has established an economic corridor. Meanwhile, with Russian support, Beijing is carefully preparing to fill the geopolitical and geoeconomic void left by the United States in Afghanistan. Other topics of discussions include multilateral projects such as the preparation for the BRICS Summit which will be held in China this year, coordination of positions and actions within the SCO and the CSTO, coordination of positions on the JCPOA negotiations with Iran in Vienna, progress in creating synergies between the Eurasian Economic Union and the BRI, and assistance on issues related to their core interests in the Indo-Pacific region, the European security architecture, and other upcoming issues of common interest within the UN Security Council.

Regarding bilateral issues, the two presidents will discuss how to deepen economic and trade ties as the bilateral trade reached a record high of more than $100 billion for the first time in 2021. There will also be talks on technological and scientific cooperation, as well as defense cooperation and future arms transfer deals. China is interested in defense cooperation as Russia could transfer advanced technologies and sophisticated weapons systems. Growing military cooperation is also the basis for strategic bilateral relations. Joint military exercises and the first joint air patrols are already taking place to ensure better interoperability between their armed forces.

Following the Olympics, the future of the European continent remains open when it comes to the destiny of its security architecture. However, the Dragonbear as a modus vivendi of systemic coordination between China and Russia in various strategic domains is here to stay and will further shape the bifurcation of the global system. For Europe, the worst nightmare is yet to come. And it’s not called the Dragonbear! No, it’s called American retreat from the old continent to deal predominantly with China (but likely with the Dragonbear too) in the Indo-Pacific (particularly East Asia) in the long run.